Reds catcher Barnhart worked on improving hitting in offseason in Indiana

Veteran Gold Glove winner will split time with former first-round pick Stephenson

Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart used the words confident, hungry and anxious to describe his mindset heading into the 2021 season.

“I can’t wait to get going,” Barnhart told reporters on Friday during a Zoom interview.

Reds pitchers and catchers held their first workout in Goodyear, Ariz., on Thursday, and the whole team, position players included, will practice together for the first time Monday. It’s the next milestone on the way to Opening Day on April 1 at Great American Ball Park.

This will be the eighth season in the big leagues for Barnhart, 30, who made his debut in the third game of the 2014 season and became a starter in 2015, splitting time with Brayan Pena. Barnhart has been the Reds’ primary catcher since 2016 and won the Gold Glove in 2017 and 2020.

Although Barnhart was as good as ever defensively in the 60-game season last summer, his batting average dipped to .204, the lowest it has been since he hit .185 in 21 games as a rookie in 2014. The average has declined four straight seasons.

In the offseason, Barnhart worked on turning around that average.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” Barnhart said. “I’ve lived in Indiana my entire life, and anybody that’s anybody in baseball has seen me play for pretty much my entire life and has seen me as a player probably since I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. I needed a fresh set of eyes, and there’s a really well-known hitting guy named Benny Craig that was right under my nose, that I had no idea about.”

Craig runs Feel Good Hitting in Carmel, Ind. It’s a private facility that emphasizes “developing positive mindsets and mental toughness when it comes to hitting.”

Craig, who played in the Reds’ minor-league system in the late 1990s, worked with Barnhart two to three times per week for two to three hours per day, trying to get Barnhart back to where he was during his best seasons at the plate. He hit .257 in 2016 and .270 in 2017.

If Barnhart starts April 1, it will be his fourth Opening Day start. Curt Casali started the opener last season, ending a three-year run for Barnhart. Casali signed with the San Francisco Giants in January after the Reds decided not to offer him a contract.

Casali started 114 games at catcher the last three seasons with the Reds, while Barnhart started 254 in the same span. The player most likely to fill Casali’s role this season as the second catcher is Tyler Stephenson, the 2015 first-round pick who hit two home runs and drove in six runs in 20 plate appearances as a rookie last season. He spent most of last season’s shortened season with the group of players working out at the alter training site in Mason.

The only other catcher on the 40-man roster is Deivy Grullón, who the Reds claimed off waivers from the Red Sox in December..

Manager David Bell expects both Barnhart and Stephenson to play a lot in 2021. Barnhart is a left-handed hitter, and Stephenson is a right-handed hitter, so that makes it easier to pick and choose when each plays, though it doesn’t mean Barnhart won’t ever play when a left-hander is pitching.

Bell also doesn’t want to get into a situation where each catcher is working with the same starting pitcher every game. He wants them to know all the pitchers.

“They’re in such different places in their careers,” Bell said. “We need to get Tyler experience. We need to get him in there. At the same time, there’s benefit to easing him in a little bit.”

Barnhart praised Stephenson’s maturity and willingness to pick the brains of veterans and coaches.

“He just continues to get better behind the plate,” Barnhart said. “It’s looking day in and day out more natural to him. I’m excited to to continue to work with him. I think last year was huge. Obviously, being on the taxi squad and then up and down was was amazing for not just him but for a lot of guys just to kind of get their feet wet in a big-league situation and be ready to hit the ground running this year because we’re going to need them a lot.”

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